Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pacifist Bashing and Violent Political Fantasies

One of the more interesting things that happens from time to time, is when someone . . . picks on pacifists. In this case, it's fantasy writer Steven Brust who for some reason bashes pacifists.

Me, I don't get attacking pacifists. Mind you, I'm not a pacifist (because I believe in immediate self-defense), but, man, I really, really want to live in a world where pacifism works. I think that pacifism should be part of the goal of any sane political and social order, because of the obviousness with which war and murder are horrific. I think it's a great shame that I can't be a pacifist and I think pacifists are a shining example of much of what is best with humanity. If they ere, they ere on the side of love and peace . . . and I do not think they ere. I think they are simply before their time, but I think their presence helps to create the time that will suit them.

Almost all people who attack pacifism use some of the same arguments. One of them is that, sometimes, you need to use a little violence to stop a greater violence. Inevitably, what is brought up is World War II. Hitler would not have been stopped with non-violent confrontation. The . . . nuttier amongst them will bring up the sorts of things Brust does. Allow me to quote:

Had the social democrats used the violence of the state that was put into their hands in 1918, Hitler could not have come to power. Had the Stalinists not withheld arms from the Spanish working class in Madrid, Franco would have fallen early and the Spanish Civil War would not have dragged on.

The "if someone had used violence against Hitler, or the fascists, early on then the bad person couldn't have come to power and the world would have been a better place". This reasoning I've always found to be intensely childish, but common. It is a slight variation of the "if we'd stopped Hitler in Munich" argument, but it requires a hell of a crystal ball.

Who is to say that if the social democrats used violence in 1918 that they wouldn't have killed even more people than Hitler. I could pretty easily invent scenarios where this would occur. The social democrats, reacting to the anti-German sentiments of England and France, turn to Stalinist Russia to find a political ally. Disgusted with their mistreatment due to the Treaty of Versailles, a German-Russian military alliance forms that throws the world into an even more murderous war -- indeed, probably possessing the same anti-semitic elements of Nazism as Hitler didn't invent German anti-semitism and Stalin was, himself, quite the sponsor of Jewish genocide. Why not that instead of "and they lived happily ever after"? I know that a lot of historians feel that World War II happened, in part, because of unresolved issues of World War I and it was part of the time, unfortunately, to ethnically cleanse populations. A military intervention in German would not have addressed those issues, because they were embedded in the international culture of the time. Or, perhaps, the government of the social democrats would have been as unstable as the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Party would have come into power, anyway.

More directly, often these little violent insurrections don't turn out as planned. I'm almost 100% if Lenin hadn't started the communist revolution in Russia, and the democracy it supplanted turned out to be tyrannical that Brust would be saying amongst his examples, "If Lenin had taken the chance offered to him . . ." It was impossible to tell at the beginning of the Russian revolution that Stalin would come out on top. Lenin was cut from an entirely different cloth than Stalin, after all. Indeed, the same is true of the Weimar Republic -- there was no way to tell that it would, eventually, produce Hitler. But the assumption that is made is if, y'know, the social democrats had gained power in Germany then everything would have been peachy keen. We don't know that. The history of various revolutions suggests that a large part of the time, things are worse after the revolution.

And it's just that the history of "liberal" military interventions is so . . . bad. They almost never go well, whether it be in the Philipines, Vietnam, Iraq . . . Haiti is a virtual study in the malevolence of supposedly humanitarian interventions. Eventually, it becomes clear that these violent interventions don't help the damn situation. They are the problem, not the solution! But the improbabilities of successful liberal military intervention actually producing peace, and the frequency with which it creates untold horrors, is never touched on by the people who think that mass murder helps a situation.

But, y'know, to justify military intervention it's impossible for someone not to bring up Hitler. They justify their love of violence by saying, "We could have stopped Hitler!" But they never say, "But what would have happened? How do we know that what happened wouldn't have been just as bad, or worse?" The answer is, of course, we don't.

(Indeed, I feel the argument depends on the demonization of Hitler. Hitler was a monster, obviously, but he has been built up into being a monster so bad that we can't imagine a world where there would be a worse monster or more horrible situation. This ignores that, in the 20th century, Hitler was the third biggest mass murderer, not the first. The one and two slots belong, respectively, to Stalin and Mao. And there are other monstrosities that are always left out -- such as the roughly two million Southeast Asians killed during the Vietnam War . . . but I never hear people saying that, you know, if the Republicans had taken the opportunity after the death of JFK, then millions in Southeast Asia would have been saved. But the idea is that Hitler was so bad that anything would have been better, but that's not true, the truth is that we don't know what would have happened and that if a person tries it's pretty easy to imagine more horrific scenarios, such as a war being deferred until Germany had nuclear weaponry.)

For me, well, it seems to me that the real way we should have stopped Hitler is instead of subjecting Germany to a humiliating treaty that stripped them of dignity and all their wealth, we could have tried rebuilding the German economy and included Germany fully in the international community, allowing them to keep their dignity. (One of the things that people forget is the extent to which Germany was ravished by the Treaty of Versailles. During the 20s and 30s, Berlin was an international sex tourism destination, for instance. Fathers were pimping their wives and daughters in the streets! It's the sort of thing that engenders bitterness.) Which is my last argument about the stupidity of saying that Hitler could have been prevented to coming to power through violence. It never addresses the reasons why Hitler was popular in the first damn place! That Hitler's rise to power was because of social conditions that could be predicted and ameliorated non-violently. (Indeed, many people were opposed to the Treaty of Versailles on the grounds that it would merely lay the foundations for a new war.)

Or, people like Brust act as if there was no viable peaceful solution in the years working up to WWII that could have avoided the war, and that any violent option would have avoided the war. Which is in addition to being untestable, barbaric. It is vile to think that violence would have honestly improved the situation and it is vile to not even consider non-violent options as being legitimate. And they never put as much effort into trying to imagine peaceful solutions as violent ones.

But, y'know, pacifists are the problem. *grits my teeth*


Unpremeditated said...

Thanks for this post - couldn't have put it better. There are SO MANY things to get worked up about in the world and SO MANY people to blame: why on Earth would anyone want to have a go at the pacifists?

Chris Bradley said...

I also posted this article on my LJ. You might want to check out the discussion there. ;)

Ian said...

Nice post, Chris; I might quibble at one or two minor points - e.g. I'm not sure Lenin was so averse to political violence as you seem to suggest - but in the main all I have to do is nod and agree.

It's an interesting question: I once worked my way through War and Peace (not in the original, although I have got the Latin), but got bogged down right at the end, when Tolstoy goes into his theoru of history. I haven't gone back to check, but I seem to recall him arguing that history was driven by individuals gaining power. This seems to me fundamentally wrong, and I am much closer to what I read you as arguing: that, for example, if Hitler had not come to power, the conditions pertaining in Germany at the time may well have thrown up another figure who could have been at least as monstrous, if not more so. So it's not the individuals who matter, it's just that someone will inevitably get thrown to the top of whichever heap has been created. And, generally, then go ahead and make it worse...

Chris Bradley said...

Hey, Ian!

I didn't mean to suggest that Lenin wasn't opposed to political violence, but merely suggest (and fully knowing that who KNOWS what would have happened if he'd lived a longer life) that his political violence wasn't of Stalinist proportions. I fully feel that post-revolutionary Russia is one of those violence socialist revolutions that produced a military dictatorship with an awful human rights record, definitely. But Lenin wasn't any more violent than, say, the Tsar's government. Which might be a quibbling distinction so forgive me if it sounds defensive. ;)

Tolstoy was a proponent of the Big Man theory of history, yeah. That political change is made by guys like Alexander the Great and Napoleon. I'm not a fan of that. I'm not sure there *is* a term for what I think the driving force of history is -- I think it's technology. That a person will build something and then, over time, we work out the political ramifications of that "thing". So, people invented horticulture and then they invented villages and then kingship to rule (or, perhaps, misrule) those villages. Or someone invents cannons and a guy like Napoleon figures out what to do with them. So, I suspect that someone like Hitler -- who discovered the political ramifications of the genocidal implications of industrial technology -- was more or less inevitable (and, indeed, duplicated in people like Stalin and Pol Pot).

This belief is related to social history, where broad culture creates the preconditions for the development of a certain kind of leader. So, in social history Hitler arose because of stuff like Germany's humiliation after the Treaty of Versailles and the endemic anti-semitism that was part of Germany's culture for at least a thousand years. (I don't think that social history is incompatible with my own pet historical theory, I should add, hehe.) That a person like Hitler didn't arise in a social vacuum -- that he was created by social forces and was merely the means through which Germany enacted already broadly existing fears and frustrations. That Hitler came to exist because the Germany people wanted someone like Hitler to come to exist. That makes somewhat more sense to me that the whole Great Man theory of history.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I agree that pacifists are ahead of their time. Like you, I could not quite be one but I would like to be. A pacifist I much admire is Vera Brittain. Few people know of her now but she was much maligned for opposing WW2.